Perhaps the president’s greatest power lies in shaping foreign policy, whether it’s serving as a representative of the United States or helping to shape public opinion. But the president clearly exercises the most control in foreign policy through initiating “police action” abroad. I use this term because technically the United States has not been at war since Word War II, and therefore the president does not require any approval from Congress for international military involvement. Think of events we would all characterize as war—such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War (although the Vietnam War was a joint resolution)—or smaller engagements like the invasion of Panama in 1989 or, more recently, the ousting of Libya’s President Gaddafi in 2011. All of these and many more fall under the dubious definition of “police action,” “peacekeeping operations,” “extended military engagements,” United Nations Security Council Resolutions, and other conveniently non-war terms. In this way, the executive branch’s influence on United States military operations abroad has increased significantly since the mid-20th century. The president is powerful. Keeping this in mind, it is critical to consider each candidate’s stances on United States military involvement abroad. The following is Against Apathy’s breakdown of each top candidate in this regard, including the Libertarian and Green Party candidates. Following this, we offer an interpretation of which candidates are the most and least likely to continue or extend American involvement in overseas military affairs.
In general, Donald Trump’s views on the United States military and foreign policy have been vague, contradictory, or simply nonexistent. It is telling that, as of writing this article, Trump’s own campaign site does not even list a section for foreign policy or military affairs. The only reference is in a familiarly short, vague video clip in which he simply states, “I will make our military so big, powerful and strong that no one will mess with us.” In a similar vein, Trump has consistently said short, often contradictory statements about the Iraq war. When asked on September 11th of 2002 if he supports invading Iraq, he replied, “Yeah, I guess so.” However, that same source shows that after about 2004 he consistently came out against involvement in Iraq, which he proudly mentioned in a recent speech. In regards to today’s Middle East, and Syria in particular, he has even refused to answer questions about his plans, insisting that it’s an important secret. Shortly after, he switched again to statements like, “Well, you bomb the hell out of them [Syria] and then you encircle it, and then you go in.”
Despite the difficulty of pinning down the presumptive Republican nominee’s views on foreign policy, there are some areas in which he has been surprisingly consistent. Broadly speaking, Trump supports investing more money in every aspect of the military, especially in nuclear arms. He has also continually expressed his support for Israel, and he even endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013. Additionally, Trump very clearly views China as the biggest threat to the United States, particularly as an economic adversary. Finally, in that same speech that he condemned China, Trump said that he’s willing to work more closely with Russia, saying that his administration would come to the table with Putin’s in a respectful way. He has even said that, while he disagrees with Putin’s policies, he admires his style of leadership—which should, perhaps, be a red flag. It should be noted, however, that Trump recently released a (ridiculous) campaign ad that implied Putin as one of America’s “toughest enemies,” which sparked some anger from Russian authorities.
However, none of this necessarily means that he supports further military involvement abroad. In a speech Trump gave in late April of this year, he finally outlined his views on this topic and many others. Instead of advocating using the military abroad, he expressed concern that U.S. military resources are overextended. In a related point, Trump firmly believes in the self-interested nation-state as the basic unit of international relations. This means doing away with or at least lessening the emphasis on international organizations such as NATO, NAFTA, and TPP, which he believes weakens the sovereignty of the United States. In terms of foreign policy, this has great impact for NATO especially, which he thinks should be supported far more by European countries like Germany. It is for these reasons that some observers have labeled Trump as both non-interventionist and nationalistic.
There is good cause to be wary of Trump’s purported non-interventionism, though. For starters, he has absolutely no political record, and therefore no recorded policies or votes on any of these issues. It was only in the last few years, and really the last few months, that he has been forced to seriously pinpoint his positions. The two most thorough primary sources on his views came in a section of his 2011 book Time to Get Tough and in his speech in April of this year. That is remarkably scant for somebody who wants to be the commander-in-chief. Second, Trump is notorious for repeatedly spewing horrifically aggressive and spontaneous statements like, “I would bomb the shit out of ‘em [ISIS],” or, “When you get these terrorists you have to take out their families.” It is bad enough to be inconsistent on such important issues, and even worse that this inconsistency includes freely throwing around extreme acts of aggression and war crimes. Finally, Trump praised the actions of the United States during the Cold War with the blanket statement, “we saved the world”—and US Cold War policy was anything but non-interventionist.
Hillary Clinton has perhaps the most extensive record in foreign policy among the candidates, which helps to provide a far clearer picture of her views. There is an enormous amount of information to sift through, but some large points should be noted.
First, as a New York Senator she voted for both the 2001 war in Afghanistan and the 2003 war in Iraq. Additionally, she voted for the PATRIOT Act in 2001 and its first set of reauthorizations in 2006.
As Secretary of State, Clinton generally advocated for an increased role of the United States internationally. She was one of the chief proponents of the 2011 military intervention in Libya, which she today praises as an example of successful foreign policy.
Clinton has continually argued for the use of what she calls “smart power,” which she defines as using every form of American power in appropriate unity and when it’s best suited for a challenge. This includes cultural influence, diplomacy, information technology, intelligence, alliances, and military force. Clinton cited the invasion of Libya as one example, but a more recent example she praised was joint military training and missile operations between the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
In November of last year, Clinton gave a speech in which she specifically outlined her strategy for combatting ISIS and her general views on policy in the Middle East. In general, she said she would increase U.S. involvement in Syria and Iraq. She wants to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, and to achieve this she says, “A more effective coalition air campaign is necessary, but not sufficient, and we should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS.” She describes these ground forces not as “100,000 American troops,” but as increased coalitions with American soldiers and local groups or governments. Additionally, she wants to bolster U.S. allies in the region, which likely includes at least Saudi Arabia and Israel—the latter of which she has repeatedly expressed firm support for. Finally, it should be noted that Clinton advised early in the conflict to supply rebel groups with arms in order to fight Assad, which the Obama administration turned down. If Clinton were president, that and establishing a no-fly zone with increased air strikes and troop presence would be likely changes in the region.
In a related note to ISIS, Clinton supports greater measures internationally for counterterrorism, including forming international organizations. She also wants governments to collect and share more information, and for the private sector to cooperate with the government in collecting information.
In a recent speech criticizing Trump’s foreign policy, Clinton emphasized very strongly her support for NATO. Instead of pulling funding or involvement, she would continue and further the influence of NATO with the U.S. at the forefront. She particularly emphasizes the importance of NATO in contrast with Russia and its involvement in Ukraine, saying that NATO should be at the front lines preventing Russia’s advance.
Overall, Clinton seems to want to further U.S. military involvement internationally, especially in the Middle East. Additionally, the rhetoric she uses and her descriptions of “smart power” point to a continuation of Cold War-style policies of selectively supporting foreign governments or rebels and pressuring enemies with containment strategies. She is notably more aggressive than Obama when it comes to committing U.S. soldiers or using the military.
The Clinton Campaign’s web page on her foreign policy stances can be found here.
Like Clinton, Bernie Sanders has an extensive history in public office. His most notable votes regarding foreign policy included his votes against the invasion of Iraq in 1991 and in 2003, his vote for the law justifying the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and his vote for the invasion of Kosovo in 1999. In a related note, Sanders voted against all forms of the PATRIOT Act as a member of the House of Representatives and, as a Senator, he voted against its reauthorization as the USA FREEDOM Act in 2015.
As his voting record reveals, Sanders is generally against further U.S. military involvement abroad. He believes that the current conflict in the Middle East in particular is an overstepping of U.S. involvement, especially President Bush’s use of unilateral action. His website advocates acting only as a coalition of allies, with the U.S. not at the forefront. Instead, Sanders supports countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan committing the bulk of military involvement, with background support from the U.S. and its other allies. Similarly, Sanders does not support increased air strikes or the establishment of a no-fly zone, as he believes this will get the U.S. further entangled in what he fears to be a perpetual war.
Like Trump and Clinton, Sanders takes Israel to be one of the key allies of the U.S. However, he differs greatly from the two in that he strongly criticizes the Israeli government, and Netanyahu in particular, as being far too aggressive. For instance, in the most recent debate he affirmed that Netanyahu’s retaliation to a recent attack on Israel was greatly disproportionate, ultimately harming any chance of reaching a two-state solution.
Generally, Sanders does not want to increase military spending. The Vermont Senator has repeatedly stated that domestic programs, such as healthcare and education, should take a priority. Additionally, he has repeatedly criticized U.S. military spending as being excessive.
However, none of this means that Sanders is wholly against U.S. military involvement abroad, or that he opposes giving the executive office more power. In fact, Sanders specifically defended Bush’s use of force in 2001 without congressional authorization. He also continues to stand by his choice to vote for the Balkans intervention. And, despite Sanders criticizing Bush-Obama era policies as committing the United States to the “quagmire” that is Syria, he continues to employ equally aggressive rhetoric as his Democratic opponent in regards to the conflict as a whole, insisting that we need to “destroy ISIS”—he just disagrees on how.
Although the Electoral College and the first-past-the-post system effectively bar third parties from U.S. elections, we will still provide a breakdown of the nominees from the two largest third parties.
As a Libertarian, Gary Johnson is opposed to big government and government interference in most affairs. Thus, he is exceedingly fiscally conservative, yet also considers himself non-interventionist in foreign policy and strongly opposes organizations such as the NSA. His website explains that, before his current presidential bid, Johnson served as the Governor of New Mexico from 1994 to 2003 as a Republican. His tenure marks perhaps the most fiscally conservative of all Republican governors. He is proud to have cut the spending of many programs, lowered taxes, and cast over 750 vetoes.
Unfortunately there is not too much information on Johnson’s foreign policy. As a governor and private entrepreneur, he has no record in any kind of foreign policy, besides perhaps advocating for legal immigration reforms. Outside of this, we can only base our conclusions of him on his website and any interviews he’s had.
Johnson’s website states that he strongly opposes U.S. military involvement abroad, especially in the Middle East. He believes that U.S. actions have only caused terror organizations and chaos to flourish while costing trillions. However, he offers no specifics for his position on the current crisis, but he does say, “the simplistic options of “more boots on the ground” and dropping more bombs must be replaced with strategies that will isolate and ultimately neuter those violent extremist groups.”
On civil liberties and domestic surveillance, Johnson laments an increasing loss of liberties and criticizes government bodies for their role. Overall, he believes that, “virtually no part of Americans’ private lives are today safe from government scrutiny and regulation.” So, while he has no relevant voting record, it seems clear that Johnson would be opposed to laws like the PATRIOT or USA FREEDOM Acts, and he would be opposed to the kind of mass surveillance the NSA has been engaged in.
However, one article got an interview with Johnson in 2012 that offers a confusing picture of Johnson’s foreign policy. Johnson affirmed that he wants to cut military spending by 43%, but that he still wants to intervene internationally for humanitarian reasons, such as going after Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army. He also said he wants to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but that he wants to keep U.S. military bases there. Overall, Johnson may not be as non-interventionist as his small-government rhetoric suggests, and we have no voting record to verify his views.
Of all of the candidates, Jill Stein has the fewest publicly expressed views, and her sole political experience as a Town Meeting Representative of Lexington, Massachusetts, places her just above Trump in relevant experience. She has run unsuccessfully for several other offices over the years.
Although her campaign website is dominated by her environmental activism record, it does list some brief statements about her foreign policy. Since it is so short, it is worth simply giving it a read:
“Establish a foreign policy based on diplomacy, international law, and human rights. End the wars and drone attacks, cut military spending by at least 50% and close the 700+ foreign military bases that are turning our republic into a bankrupt empire. Stop U.S. support and arms sales to human rights abusers, and lead on global nuclear disarmament.”
Another page on her site lists several other relevant policy plans. She pinpoints Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt as a few human rights abusers she wants to pull support for. She also wants to stop selling arms globally, to end military interventions and assassinations abroad, and withdraw all troops for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Her site also criticizes recent violations of civil liberties. She vows to stop all forms of warrantless surveillance, repeal the National Defense Authorization Act—which gives the president the power to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens without due process—, and to repeal the PATRIOT Act.
I could only find one debate with Stein—and it was a 2012 Google Hangout debate featuring Gary Johnson. In it, Stein reiterated that she believes the U.S. should not be militarily involved abroad. She cited Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria as examples of U.S. invasions and occupations creating worse scenarios while costing trillions. Additionally, she heavily criticized the wanton use of drone strikes as contributing to hatred towards America.
Otherwise, outside of her campaign site there is little information explaining more about her proposals. However, the fact that she was arrested in 2012 while trying to attend a debate with Romney and Obama suggests that maybe her message is difficult to get out.
As many might have suspected, Trump is clearly the most inflammatory and aggressive of all of the candidates, despite having no voting record. Although Clinton’s rhetoric doesn’t match Trump’s absurdity, she is also quite aggressive—and she has a long record of this. Additionally, she has said several times that she will continue to expand U.S. military involvement abroad if president.
Many people paint Sanders as a dove in contrast to Clinton as a hawk. Yet, Sanders is also no pacifist. In particular, his vote in 2001 for the law that justified the invasion of Afghanistan should not be overlooked. It’s especially important to understand that this law was both very short and very vague, with no mention of Afghanistan or terms of military engagement whatsoever. Rather, it gave the president free range to pursue who he deemed to be terrorists wherever they may be and with whatever means. In fact, this law is the justification for today’s involvement in Syria—so this cannot be taken lightly. However, Sanders has continually criticized U.S. Cold War policy and interventionism, and he has made clear that he wants to scale back military spending.
Both Jill Stein and Gary Johnson are far less militaristic than any of the other candidates. However, neither has any public record in foreign policy, so it may be hard to trust them. Additionally, neither has explained their views much in-depth (or I have just not found it). Johnson seems perhaps slightly more willing to use U.S. military force abroad than Stein, but the two of them still remain in a league of their own in terms of foreign policy.
Of course, none of this discussion accounts for factors outside of foreign policy and domestic civil liberties—so this may all be a moot point for some. However, Against Apathy would just like to emphasize the sheer power of the president in military affairs. Please consider this before casting your vote this November.